Wednesday, April 23, 2014

BEAR WITH ME

By

Paul D. Ellner


My eyesight began to change even before we moved to Lakeridge. While flying Search and Rescue missions for the Civil Air Patrol, my landings began to get bumpier, and I was diagnosed with AMD.  Age-related Macular Degeneration is a progressive retinal disease that causes most of the blindness in the U.S.  My flying days were over.

In Lakeridge, however, I was able to lead a normal life, recognize friends, and enjoy long walks with Heidi, my beloved Doberman. Eventually, my Dobie became lame and had to be put down. I was depressed.

I poured myself into my writing, published three novels, and wrote a book of poems.

Meanwhile, I tried every available treatment for my eyes, but inevitably there came a day when the ophthalmologists told me there was nothing further that could be done. At this point, I could not see more than about six feet ahead, distinguish TV, read, write, or see the food on my plate although I had some peripheral vision.  I became completely dependent upon my wife Connie to get around Lakeridge or anywhere else for that matter. Someone at the VA suggested getting a guide dog, but I was approaching the end of my 8th decade, and I wondered if I was up to it. Nevertheless, I applied to several organizations that provide service dogs. One of them rejected me because I was too old, and another required that I provide daily three-hour walks for the dog. A third one, Guiding Eyes for The Blind in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., agreed to consider my application. After 13 months of waiting, I was accepted into a class and reported to the large Guiding Eyes facility.

On the second day, my instructor told me, “We have a dog that we think is right for you. This dog was returned to Guiding Eyes by the client, so he is a year older than our other dogs.  The problem was not with the dog, but with the client.  The dog has been retrained.”

“No, thanks,” I said. “I’d rather have a fresh dog.”

The instructor persisted. “I think you should reconsider because this dog is really the best match for you.”

“OK,” I told her. “I’ll try him.”

It was a decision I will never regret. I was introduced to Ray, a three- year old black Labrador, and it was love at first sight. We bonded and for the next three weeks, from 6 AM until 9 PM, Ray, my instructor, and I worked together. Initially I learned to care for him, put on his harness, and to pick up the “poop” he left several times a day when I took him out. I began to learn how to work with him in the city, in restaurants, malls, and in the country. The instructors are highly motivated and trained young people who love dogs and are committed to having their clients succeed. After graduation, I came home with Ray, and another instructor came for several days to ensure that Ray and I became familiar with Lakeridge.

My life had definitely improved. With Ray‘s help I am now able to walk all around Lakeridge on the roads and also on the new trails through the woods. Ray is a friendly, gentle companion, but strictly business when wearing his harness.

I had heard that there are bears around Lakeridge, but I never saw one. That is, until a few days before writing this article.

The day started about seven, when Ray and I walked to the West Lodge. In the locker room he waited while I changed my shoes for sneakers and then lay patiently along side of the treadmill while I did my thirty-minute workout. On the way home, we stopped at the Maintenance yard to see if the short cut to Old Farms Road had been shoveled free of snow.  It was, and we took it starting down the left edge of Old Farms. About halfway down the street, Ray suddenly stopped abruptly near one of the garbage bins.

“Why are you stopping?” I asked him.  “Let’s go!”

Ray didn’t budge. It was as if he was anchored in place. He looked pointedly at the garbage bin, and then I saw it. A large black bear about five feet away from us.

“Forward,” I commanded, but instead, Ray made a right turn taking me to the yellow line and then down the street while constantly looking alternatively at the bear and then ahead. The bear remained on all fours, didn’t move, or utter a sound. Ray remained silent while continuing to take me away from the bear at a normal pace. I was too stunned to feel fear until later, when I considered that if Ray had growled or barked, the bear might have felt threatened and attacked us. I think the bear was probably confused, and I know that Ray was scared, but he kept his cool and continued to do his job taking me safely home.

I think that if we ever encounter this bear again, it will consider us harmless and leave us be. Nevertheless, it is comforting to know that come hell or high water, Ray does his job guiding me safely.